Culture Shock #99: Japanese Beauty Standards

I am going to be doing some posts about my experience as a Kenyan in Japan. I’ll count down from 100 but in no particular order. Of course I expected Japan to be different, so when people asked me if I experienced culture shock, I’d say no, but on further reflection there are so many things that have me asking, Japan, what the hell? That would never happen in Kenya! (and vice versa!). If that isn’t culture shock, then I don’t know what is. As an English-speaking nation and a former British colony, we are heavily influenced by the West (Europe and the USA), there is little in our media/entertainment from Far East Asia .. not many Kenyans know much about The Far East and many confuse Japan for China or vice versa. Here is the previous post, #100 and the hashtag for all the posts so far.

  • Small Head, Small Face

I was in the bus with my Ethiopian friend who’s married to a Japanese guy and she has been living here in Japan for over 15 years. I was of course, actively avoiding eye contact with a few curious people who stole glances at me. I couldn’t however, avoid eye contact with my Ethiopian friend whom I was chatting with, even if she was looking at me a tad too intensely before remarking:

“You’re very pretty. And you’ve got a small head, and a small face..”

I was puzzled.

Here is a picture of me wearing an Ethiopian dress. Is my head small? What about my face?

Here is a picture of me wearing an Ethiopian dress. Is my head small? What about my face?

She then explained to me that Japanese people usually have big heads (her words, not mine) and that they desire small heads and small faces. Up until that point, and really even up to now, I had and have never given a thought to the ratio of the size of Japanese heads to their bodies. It’s simply ridiculous but perhaps that’s the Kenyan in me talking. No one gives a thought about the size of your head, and width of your face as a standard of beauty in Kenya.

I thought maybe it is just something foreigners observe. Until another time I was in the car with a Japanese friend who was dropping me off in campus. He spent a year in the US and is obsessed with basketball, rap and basketballers. He remarked wistfully, “They are so tall and they have such small heads.” So I turned to look at him and earnestly told him, “Hey, your head is small too.” He was like, “really? thanks!”
Now you know what compliment to give next time you’re talking to a Japanese guy. “You’ve got such a small head, and your face is small too!”. Say that to a Kenyan at the risk of being thought insane.

Oh look at the size of LeBron's head.. so small!

Oh look at the size of LeBron’s head.. so small!

In my opinion if you ask me, I think having a big head would imply a big brain and that’s a good thing, no?

Perhaps nothing can be done about the size of the head but fear not if you’re a broad-faced Kenyan woman wanting to look beautiful in Japan, there is an invention called the facial corset that promises a tiny face. You might think I am joking but this product is available on Amazon from as low as $10 and has a 3.6/5 star rating..

The Absolute Tiny Face Corset from Amazon

The Absolute Tiny Face Corset from Amazon. Image from Amazon

  • Small, Straight Nose

As an African, my nose is probably on the broader, flatter side.. Here I would terribly fail the Japanese beauty test for the desired small, straight nose. Being in a land of technological innovation, there is a list of gadgets available to help shape my face, including The Hana Tsun Nose Straightener (see image below), The Eye Slack Haruka, The Eyelid Trainer, The Rhythm Slim Chin Exerciser, The Face Slimmer Mouthpiece etc..

The Hana Tsun Nose Straightener

The Hana Tsun Nose Straightener. See link above for source

  • Double Eyelids

Let’s not even get started on this one. I had no idea what “double eyelids” were until I got to Japan. 100% of the Kenyans I know have double eyelids so it’s not something you’re “aware” of until you meet people who want it. You can read an article about it on gaijinpot.com.” Blepharoplasty, also known as the double eyelid surgery is one of the most popular cosmetic surgeries in Japan. The surgery is performed to transform the Asian “monolid” into a Western-style [edit African-style too!] “double lid” thereby making the patient’s eyes look bigger.”

Source: gaijinpot.com

Source: gaijinpot.com

  • Crooked Teeth

There are reports of Japanese women getting surgery to make their straight teeth crooked because it is seen as more attractive. But it’s not crooked teeth per se but slightly longer, vampire-like canines.. I don’t think it is a very popular trend among the general population. However, I have made one interesting observation: all the women I’ve met so far with (naturally) crooked teeth are beautiful. I don’t know if there’s a correlation there.

Japanese twins

I met the Japanese twins above at the Tokyo Sevens, they were supporting the Kenyan team. They’re beautiful and coincidentally they also have slightly crooked canines. I hope they’re okay with me using their photos, I don’t remember their names/contact!

Physique
Ah.. let’s not go there today! But a definition of “slim” by Kenya standards is “average” here.

Culture Shock #100: Japanese Men and Their Wallets, Manbags

I am going to be doing some posts about my experience as a Kenyan in Japan. I’ll count down from 100 but in no particular order. Of course I expected Japan to be different, so when people asked me if I experienced culture shock, I’d say no, but on further reflection there are so many things that have me asking, Japan, what the hell? That would never happen in Kenya! (and vice versa!). If that isn’t culture shock, then I don’t know what is. As an English-speaking nation and a former British colony, we are heavily influenced by the West (Europe and the USA), we watch lots of Western shows and yes, we also do watch lots of South American and Filipino soap operas .. but the point is, not many Kenyans know much about The East and many confuse Japan for China or vice versa. Anyway, without further ado, presenting post #100. Here is the hashtag for the posts

The first time I saw someone with a huge wallet popping out of his back pocket was in a crowded bus on the way to campus. I couldn’t believe it. Just like below:

This would never happen in Kenya. When in Nairobi, I keep my wallet inside a smaller bag inside my handbag, which I walk with under my armpit while always on the lookout. If you see someone with an exposed wallet in Nairobi, I am sure even thieves wouldn’t pinch it. It’s clearly a trap! Even with our wallets hidden deep inside our bags/bodies, pickpockets still manage to get at them or just take the entire bag with them. Japan would be a goldmine to them (pickpockets).

Now China is more like Kenya where they have this anti-theft shoulder strap bag thing for men.

This Anti-Theft-Hidden-Underarm-Shoulder-Bag-Holster is available on Alibaba

This Anti-Theft-Hidden-Underarm-Shoulder-Bag-Holster is available on Alibaba

Manbags
They are everywhere in Japan. They are such a big deal almost every guy you encounter will be carrying a bag ranging from a formal briefcase to a casual, as feminine-as-can-be handbag. Most of the manbags are more stylish than any bag I own! Very few men in Kenya carry manbags and some people think it is gay to be seen with one!

The images below are sourced from the web but they are everyday scenes.In fact, there is a pininterest page just dedicated to Japanese men and their fashionable manbags. Here is another blog talking about the same thing.

The stylish manbag

The stylish manbag

The stylish manbag

The stylish manbag

Nairobi men would rather be dead than carry their girlfriends’ handbags, let alone their own. This thing about men being too macho to carry handbags is just in the mind guys, it’s a culture thing. A culture shock thing? Haha I live for the day the stylish manbag will be a common scene in Nairobi.

The Book Review Post – 6 Books You May Want to Read

Books are an escape into another reality, a chance to live and experience and enjoy what the limits of human imagination has to offer.

1. The Secret History of Vegas by Chris Abani

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this particular book by Chris Abani. I got to know about this book from James Murua’s literature blog. The book has been shortlisted and won several awards. See other glowing reviews here (The Washington Post) and here (The New York Times).

My copy of the book, The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani

My copy of the book, The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani

I read the book back in May and I am just reviewing it now, six months later. I have either become lazy or I am losing the blogging mojo or both. Anyway, this is not a conspiracy book about the current Las Vegas and its secret past; rather it is a story about twin brothers who are conjoined into adulthood. One is Fire and the other is Water. They are homeless “freaks”, Water is tall and handsome while Fire grows out from his side.. little more than a head with two arms projecting out of Water’s side. They are caught with a container of blood near Lake Mead where bodies of homeless have been dumped before. It is also a story about a certain South African called Dr. Sunil, who lives in Las Vegas and is conducting dubious experiments for the US government, reminiscent of other experiments he carried out for the apartheid government back in his home country. There are many other characters as well, such as detective Salazar. As the story unfolds, we get to see the backstory to the characters and realize just how much, in the words of the Washington Post review, “the world can be horrid on a grand scale, and we’re all at risk of being downwind of the worst that humanity has to offer.” This book will be worth your time.

2. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
I am glad I hadn’t watched this movie because I could then realize why the book had to be made into a movie.

That is how I felt while reading the book. It was full of suspense from the beginning to the very end. There are two sides to every story has never been a truer statement.

The story starts when Amy, Nick Dune’s wife, has gone missing (she is the Gone Girl). From the journal entries from her past, she tells the story of how she and Nick met five years prior, their marriage that has been steadily disintegrating since then until she finally goes missing on their 5th anniversary. Nick starts looking for his wife and after reporting her missing to the cops and calling her parents, he quickly becomes a suspect in the case. Overwhelming evidence seems to pile up and Amy’s diary entries make us suspicious too. The question now is, is Amy still alive? Where was she? Is Nick innocent? The story has an interesting twist at the end that I don’t want to give away, but Amy could be lying in her journal, or Nick could be the one lying, or both are lying. You find out.

3. The Weight of Whispers by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Well, this isn’t exactly a novel but the award winning short story by Yvonne. You can get the pdf here. The story won the 2003 Caine Prize for African Writing.

The weight of whispers by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

The weight of whispers by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

It’s a story about Rwandan genocide survivors. War robs people of their homes, their livelihoods, their security, the innocence, their status and material possessions, their lives and that of their kin, but most of all, war robs people of their DIGNITY. When you are alive and you are refugee, you lose your dignity as you try to jump over a fence other human beings erect to keep you out of “their country”, as you beg for bread and water so your children won’t starve, as you push other refugees to get into a train that’s going to destinations where no one wants to see you, where they don’t think of you as a fellow human being but as a REFUGEE.

It is in this state that a royal Rwandese family finds itself in Kenya, living in one room in Nairobi’s back streets, hoping to get out and go to Europe as some families were able to do. They must find their way out by any means necessary, sometimes ways that strip them of any little dignity left. The cost of their actions may be too high as they are about to find out. It was such a melancholic read for me. I think I shed a tear once or twice.

4. Call of the Wild by Jack London
If you have read White Fang by Jack London, then you might be familiar with his style of telling a story from a dog’s point of view.

 The Call of the Wild by Jack London

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

It tells the story of a large dog stolen from his home and sold to gold prospectors in the mountains of Canada. Here, the domesticated dog’s true nature is awakened from torment by his new masters, and as soon as he is trained he is put to work hauling mail through the snow. The dog Buck, meets and makes friends with many among men and among the dogs. The ending is a little bit sad but the story is every bit involving. It’s also not as long and is perfect for a laid back indoor weekend. You could also watch the movie from which the book was adapted.

5. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

I read this book when I was young and when I found a free copy in my e-reader I decide it was worth re-reading it. The character is so famous there is no need to reintroduce him here. Dr. Watson, who is Sherlock Holmes’ best friend, is the narrator. There are twelve stories in the collection. One of my favorites because it was so funny was “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League”, in which there is a league recruiting men with red hair – but there is no such thing as it is merely a plot to lure a certain red-headed man from the scene of a would-be crime. “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” was also interesting in the many twists it had. “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” was a little chilling, as was “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb” but overall they were both entertaining reads. If you have never read Sir Arther Conan Doyle, you are doing yourself a great injustice. There is nothing as interesting as rediscovering your love for a good mystery and marveling at Sherlock’s brilliant ways of discovering the truth.

6. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

This is another classic that I also hadn’t read previously. Here, I add that I also haven’t read Wuthering Heights by the sister, Emily Bronte. Saying it is a classic reminds me of the quip I read somewhere “a classic is a book that everyone praises but no one reads”. But pick up such a book, have a little patience and you will soon see why it is a classic.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre is a little, plain but passionate girl. She is orphaned while very young and goes to live with her aunt and cousins, who make it obvious they don’t want her there and send her away to a boarding school for girls when she’s about 10. After a strict education, she stays on at the school for two more years teaching and then decides she is ready to face an adventure in the real world. She encounters friendships, love, and kinship; as well as loss. A bittersweet ending to the book is what you will find in the story of Jane Eyre, for whom I have boundless admiration. It is the book I read the most recent and it’s still fresh in my memory; so well written and the characters are so alive. When their memory is blurred by time, I am sure I shall then reread the book. Great stories are not about big, larger than life characters having an extra-ordinary adventure; great stories are about ordinary characters that we can relate to, but their story is told with such beauty and such elegance that their ordinary story becomes a fascinating adventure.

Those are the books I have read since May, including the children’s book, Matilda. I have hardly read in November but in December I must read at least one book and I am scouting my (e)library for an easy read.

I Was Hacked and Other October Stories

In many ways, October was a trying month for me.

To begin with, there was the drama with Jeremy’s ticket, which I have already blogged about.

The journey to Japan was long and tiring. We first flew from Nairobi to Doha, Qatar, a 5 hour journey that was mostly smooth because Jeremy slept through most of it. In Doha, we had about a 2 hour layover, after which we boarded the plane for a 10 hour journey to Osaka. Jeremy slept for maybe 3-4 hours but the remaining hours were spent going to the toilet – to flush it, apparently it is very exciting for kids to hear the sudden flushing sound in airplane toilets – and back to our seats. We probably visited the toilet at least 15 times before J finally tired of the “game” and after eating a whole packet of crisps – hey don’t judge me, he had refused to eat most of what was served even if it was mostly rice, which he likes. So after eating a whole packet of crisps, he relaxed and even watched a bit of Dora the Explorer. He however, refused to sit down during landing and attempts to make him sit were met with wild screams – I am sure the Japanese people in the plane wondered if I was doing something “bad” to him. We finally landed safely, at 5;30pm in the evening but we had another 3 hour journey to Komatsu from Kansai to go through.

Jeremy watching Dora the Explorer on the way from Doha to Osaka

Jeremy watching Dora the Explorer on the way from Doha to Osaka

I had two suitcases, two carryon bags, and Jeremy to look after, but somehow I made it. Jeremy “helped” by holding onto one suitcase so he thought he was pulling it but that was how I was able to “hold his hand”. We made it to Komatsu at around 10pm and I knew he must be hungry because he was asking me for chocolate. A friend picked us up from the train station and we went to MacDonalds where he refused to eat the burger but ate the fries and drank the milk. We finally got to the campus after 11p,m, our home for the next 3 years, and slept long and hard after a hot bath.

The first week was spent at the local city hall filling hundreds of forms – the Japanese are famous for their bureaucracy -, filling forms at the university, I was officially changing my status from research student to PhD student, settling into the new 1 bed-roomed apartment at the university dorm, shopping for necessities, and taking Jeremy to the preschool (called Hoikuen) where he would spend his daytime as I studied.

It was trying being his “mother” and sole caregiver for the first time since he was born. See, I was living with my parents when he was born so my mother took care of the both of us. In addition, he had a nanny and we always had an array of cousins, aunts and relatives to give him care and attention. Of course he also received attention from my brothers and my dad. So now it was up to me to provide all that attention, and it was difficult for both of us because sometimes I could not discern why he was crying. Sometimes he cries because he wants to go to the toilet instead of just saying it (he is toilet trained), or he is hungry but isn’t sure what he wants to eat (you have to present all options you have then he will choose what he wants or you choose for him), or he needs to sleep. The need for sleep is the hardest because he may not want to sleep although he is tired, so he will be irritable and you have to hold and sooth him and “create conditions suitable for him to sleep”. I have since learned his needs – which are the basic food, toilet, sleep – but he also craves entertainment/stimulation and now most days are smooth sailing.

I had a schedule set, I would drop off J at the Hoikuen by 9am, come back to attend classes and do assignments, pick him up at 3 or 4pm, play with him, give him a bath, dinner and he would be asleep by 8pm after which I would continue with my research. However, it took a while for him to get used to going to preschool and he would want to play outside when it was time for lunch, would push other kids as a form of “play” as he was used to playing with older kids back in Kenya, and the Hoikuen would call me to pick him up early. Usually, 12:30. However, by the third week, he was finally staying until 3pm or even 4pm without fuss, he was following rules, he was eager in the morning to go to school and would leave me at the entrance as I removed my shoes and run to his class to play with “my children” as he calls them in Swahili, “watoto wangu”.

Jeremy and I taking a walk at around the campus one evening. We stopped to rest and take selfies!

Jeremy and I taking a walk at around the campus one evening. We stopped to rest and take selfies!

Everything was starting to “settle down”. Having begun the month in a state of debt, I was planning on how to settle these debts, how to adjust my schedule so I could have more research time (I find myself going to bed at 8pm together with J!) etc. The city hall document requests were almost complete, and I was planning on my next blogpost about reviewing 2-3 books I had read recently. I was checking my emails when I saw an announcement from Stanchart telling me the loan rates were increasing, yet again. Yes, I took a bank loan from Stanchart two years ago at an interest rate of 16.9%, but the rates have now increased to 25.4%, possibly increasing my blood pressure as well. I was mad at the stupid economy that is Kenya right now, and the banks that must make a profit whether it rains or shines. Where they expect us to get more money from in the “prevailing economic conditions” as they said in the email is a mystery to me.

Then I got hacked, and anyone attempting to access my blog was faced with a dire warning: “reported attack page”.

I must admit, this warning scared the shit out of me.

I must admit, this warning scared the shit out of me.

Actually, the attackers had been around my blog for some time now. I found weird PHP scripts in my WordPress folder, such as kill.php, sulky.php, sly.php etc.. and my blog would be inundated with DoS attacks and would be inaccessible for some time. Updating WordPress and plugins and themes, changing passwords wouldn’t work.. until finally the dire warning came and even I could hardly access my blog. So now I was in the midst of figuring out how to start afresh, without infected files but while retaining all my 4 years’ worth of blogging content.

Suspicious php scripts in my previous WordPress folder

Suspicious php scripts in my previous WordPress folder

The clearing of the debts and loans, the cleaning of the blog, my assignments – every week I got new assignments for the two classes I am taking – my major research, my minor research project, where I was going to find time to study Japanese, Jeremy and how he was adapting to the school; these were among the many thoughts going through my head as we sang “The wheels on the bus song” on Wednesday morning last week as I drove Jeremy to school.

We had just got to a 4-way junction next to the university campus with no traffic lights but stop signs for the drivers on the “minor road”. I was on the main road and was going straight, and therefore I am not required to stop. I observed a car on the minor road that had stopped, so I merely slowed down and was almost through the intersection when I saw another white car bearing down on us from the left; I saw that it was not going to slow down or stop so I put my hand on the horn and my foot on the brakes. But it was too late, the next thing I heard was the crunch of metal against metal, and the sound of metal scratching against the road as both our cars went in different directions.

I cannot explain what the my state of mind was at that point but I was calm enough to oddly switch on the hazard lights, put the car in parking and switch off the engine, and then pick up J from his child seat that was strapped to the back seat. He was safe from injury and neither had I been injured. Carrying J, I went to see how the other driver was fairing as he got out from his car that had somehow climbed over the curb and come to a rest a few meters into the grass park. He was also fine.

This was my first accident. It was minor accident, when it comes to injuries. However, the condition of the cars is another story. At the point of initial impact, the front left wheel of my car was bent inward and suspended a little in the air, the axle having been bent into an awkward angle. The other guy’s car also looked terrible, with the glass on the passenger side shattered, and the hood gaping open revealing the piping and engine &co. The cops were called and wrote their report, the insurance company came, the guy admitted he was at fault etc… All this time, Jeremy was growing impatient as he wanted to go to school and luckily another student (she’s also a mother whose child goes to the same Hoikuen) who was passing by offered to take him to hospital for checkup and later to school, and I was left to deal with the formalities.

Now I feel like I am back to zero. Carless and broke as I wait for the insurance company to pay me for the damages even as they offer me the lowest amount possible.

But each day offers a new return to normalcy and mundanity, which is what I wish for. We are now using the school bus on most days and borrowing a car from a friend when needed. The most exciting thing I look forward to is when Jeremy has learned a new Japanese word or mastered the name of a new friend. The most satisfaction I look forward to is sending in my report just before the deadline. And when I manage to get enough time to type out a 2,000 blogpost and upload it to my now newly re-launched, clean blog (how I cleaned up is a story for another blog post). I am grateful for these small things. I also happen to have one of the most understanding professors for my major research which is a bonus.

The other day, some tweeps with pea-sized brains looking for some entertainment unearthed and started retweeting some tweets from 2010 (5 years ago!) when I had a twitter bout with a certain gentleman, then nicknamed “The Corporate Gangster”. I simply had no time to indulge them, I am literally and figuratively at another (superior) place and have more important issues to deal with. Like how calmly to navigate the 4-way junction each time I drive through it.

October was a long month, and all I ask for in November is normalcy, consistency, mundanity. I am simply glad to be alive so I can watch my son grow into the fine young man he’s already showing signs of.

(Edit)P.S.
To complete the October misery, I came to back to Japan only to learn that while I was in Kenyan in the summer, the only Japanese musician (and actor, photographer, radio host, Japan’s -well, formerly- most eligible bachelor etc) whose music I listen to, secretly got married but not to me as I had hoped 🙁

So anyway, you can listen to his playlist below.

Jeremy in Japan

Jeremy almost didn’t come to Japan!

I don’t know how to write this post so let me start from the very beginning.

I was born 27 years ago.. okay no, this is too far back. I graduated from campus 4 years ago and in those 4 years I lived in Rwanda for 3 months, I did my master’s degree, I worked at EY Kenya for 2 years, I bought my first car, I gave birth to my first baby (Jeremy) and I got a scholarship to do my PhD in Japan. That about summarizes all the posts in this blog between 2011-2015. While this paragraph could be mistaken for vanity, sometimes I write to “encourage myself” to hang in there, there is much more to be done.

When I got the scholarship last year, I had two major decisions to make. Quitting my job (it was a private company with no extended study leave unlike the government jobs) and leaving behind my young son who was then one a half years old. The former decision wasn’t so hard, while the work was good and promising, I wanted to travel and could always find another job when I got back. Leaving my son was hard, but I knew he would be well taken care of by my parents. His father and I are not together so he – the father – wasn’t a factor in the decision. Had I been married, perhaps the decision to leave would have been harder.

When I made the decision to come to Japan, I decided I would settle down then bring Jeremy to stay with me. I know many people who leave their kids to be brought up by their parents but I wasn’t going to take the easier road. Seeing Jeremy clinging to my mum at the airport, a bored expression on his face because he wanted to sleep, was a sad sight because poor J didn’t know he wouldn’t see his mum again for a year. The moment I landed in Japan, I put a countdown timer on the blog, it wound down to 0 on October 1st 2015, the day of the flight.

To prepare for J’s coming, I made all the visa formalities while in Japan. Because he’s my dependant getting his visa wasn’t so hard. I applied to move from the university dorm’s single rooms to the family room, I applied to the daycare center/kindergarten where J would spend his day etc.. and then I booked two return tickets from Japan to Kenya. Why return tickets? Well, the return tickets were cheaper so I thought I was being clever by booking two return tickets for Jeremy and I, to and from Japan. He wouldn’t fly with me from Japan but after my September summer vacation in Kenya, we would fly back together.

Return ticket

Return ticket

Buying a return ticket (originating in Japan) for J was a big mistake!

It turns out you can’t fly only the “return” journey on a “return ticket”; you can get away with just flying the “to” journey but not the “from” only. Which is not in the terms and conditions; I read them. And what’s this about return tickets being cheaper than one-way tickets?!

Anyway I didn’t know about this until 30th September, the day before the return journey from Nairobi to Japan. I got an email about my return journey itinerary but it only showed my name and not J’s. It was around 9pm, and I started to panic. I made a call to the Qatar offices in Nairobi and got a recorded message that their offices are open from 8:30 am to 5pm. The flight was the following day at 5pm. I hardly slept that night waiting for 8am when I would make the call.

It’s 6am on the day of the flight. I have already gone over the worst case scenario, where I would have to buy a new ticket and if there wasn’t a seat available on the same flight I would have to delay my journey until we could travel together. At 8am sharp, I called the Qatar line and got the recorded message again. I realized I was 30 minutes early and waited to call again at 8:30, only to yet again get the recording and this time it added that they were closed for the day! After consulting with my mum, I decided to try the ticket/checkin desk at the airport and so after a quick breakfast, I was at the airport at 10am, trying to find a way.

The desks were open and luckily the first guy I approached turned to be a supervisor or something, and he told me..
“oh those return tickets? No, you can’t fly out of sequence on a return ticket. Just forget about it.” Well, he didn’t put it that abruptly but that was the summary. He checked the details again and told me yes, there was space available and a one-way ticket for a minor to Japan would cost about 800 USD, or 88,000KES or 97,000Yen. I gave him my Japanese credit card to swipe. “Card cannot be not read” error. I tried to purchase the ticket online because then I could use the card, but you can’t do online booking for a minor alone, and most flights closed their online booking 3 days in advance. I even made calls to the online booking sites and they confirmed that they too, cannot book for a minor alone.

It was now past 11, and I called home and told them to give J a bath and to dress him, I was “almost sorting out the issue”. I refused to give in to the urge to sit down and cry.

The state of my finances is not great, being a student generally means no savings and sometimes lots of debt (e.g. in form of credit cards). My Kenyan credit card limit wasn’t enough to swipe, but I could withdraw a maximum of 25K. I now had a 75K deficit. It was then approaching 11:30am. 6 hours to take off.

Thank God for M-Pesa, and friends. I called my friends and within 30 minutes I had raised the deficit. By this time I had walked around the airport at least 3 times, making phone calls, withdrawing cash from MPesa agents and from ATMS, and had been in and out of the check-in terminal so many times that the security guys just nodded to me asking me, “bado?”

With the cash in hand, I went to the guy who told me to go wait for them in their offices behind the counters as they were readying to send off a plane. I went round the counters to the office and met this lady at the door; she was like, “yes?”

“I need to buy a ticket.” said I, wallet bulging with cash.

She narrowed her eyes, pursed her lips and said in the most patronizing tone ever, “We don’t sell tickets here.”

“What? But.. but.. where do you sell them?” I wasn’t even in a mood to negotiate, I just wanted a solution.

“Our town office.” She had this expression on her face that just begged to be smacked. I did not give in to the urge. Just then, the guy I had been dealing with appeared and said, “she’s with me.” That settled it, I was left to wait while they went to “wave goodbye to the plane.”

At around 1pm, he finally came back, he typed details here and there as I waited with bated breath. “Tuko na time, don’t worry”. As I handed over the cash, turns out it was 10K short. I had the rest in Mpesa but I had withdrawn less 10K. He told me don’t worry, just bring the cash during check in, which opens at 2:30pm. He handed me the freshly printed ticket and I rushed to the car and drove home just within speed limits. It was then almost 1:30pm and the last thing I needed was to be stopped by a [hungry] cop for over speeding. Luckily, we live about 20 minutes’ drive from the airport. A quick lunch, shower and change of clothes, last minute prayer from mum’s friend and I was finally driving back to the airport. We arrived at 3:30, checked in, said bye to family, sambazad all remaining bundles/airtime and finally boarded the plane.

Jeremy slept immediately we took off from Nairobi. He slept peacefully most of the trip from Nairobi to Doha. From Doha to Osaka was a totally different story, but what does it matter anyway? Jeremy is in Japan.

P.S. There is a possibility that I can ask the Qatar guys in Japan to let J reuse the now hanging ticket, perhaps by adding some fee. I just haven’t the energy to face any airline or their agent at the moment.

My RCPT Receipting App Update

I am going through a hiatus in writing this blog. I decided to take a break until October when hopefully refreshed, I shall resume regular blogging. Today’s post is a guest post about the updated version of a very useful app that I have reviewed before.

[Guest post by Victor]

When I was requested to do a guest review on RCPT(pronounced receipt) an android mobile Application that produces Mpesa receipts by Disruptive Technologies LTD, I was skeptical anyone would want a receipt other than the SMS notification from Mpesa. The app is now available on Google Play whereas previous it was only available on the Safaricom App Store.

My RCPT logo

My RCPT logo

After installing the app, it read my Mpesa Paybill and Lipa na Mpesa (buy goods) text messages and produced virtual receipts arranged by date with the latest payments first and so on. I also noticed that it does the same for Nairobi water and services LTD although I did not test the feature since I am not their customer. I was impressed by the simple and crisp new design.

Home:

My RCPT app

My RCPT app

Payments made:

All payments organized as receipts in the app

All Mpesa paybill payments organized as receipts in the app

The app certainly addresses the main headache users will face if mobile payments are going to be the norm rather than exception. The SMS receipts currently in use are restricted to mobile devices and people will want to use the receipts in other platforms. You want to print a receipt, you want to email a receipt, but all you have is a text message! This app offers you a way to generate virtual e-receipts and PDF receipts which you can then print/email.

The Virtual Receipt and PDF Receipt

The virtual e- receipts are free to use and they are used from within the App by scanning the QR code which is the Mpesa transaction id encoded into QR code format. The app incorporates a QR scanner and this is genius since to verify an Mpesa transaction id currently requires you to type – not cool at all.

MyRCPT virtual receipt

MyRCPT virtual receipt

By scanning the QR, you can verify whether a receipt (from your customer) is genuine or not, rather than manually checking the transaction Id. The QR scanner can be used to admit or allow access to concerts, virtual vouchers, members clubs, sports and games e.t.c. I loved this feature the most since I have seen concert organizers print paybill number for their events and people can start showing up with printed receipts from the App or just show the virtual receipt and the concert organizers can scan to verify authenticity.

The developers are trying to build an ecosystem that will in future include API for other developers to tap into their systems, so they can be used by concert organizers etc.. anyone who needs such a service (authenticating mpesa transaction receipts). They have also created a Lipa Na Mpesa payment module for open cart – for those who want to use the lipa na Mpesa option on their websites etc- and are giving the code away for FREE check out.

Receipt exported to PDF

Receipt exported to PDF

However, scanning the QR code on receipts and generating PDF receipt is a premium service that you activate by paying Ksh 20 via Safaricom M-PESA within the App. I was happy to pay the ksh 20 because this is the first App that has used MPESA for in app payments and I was curious to test if it works. To pay you simply enter your mobile number on the provided text field and click on the button then wait for USSD prompt from Safaricom to pop up on your phone to complete the transaction. To complete the transaction, you use your Bonga pin (Which I think is lame from Safaricom-not many people know their bonga pins so they need to change this). I give the developers (Disruptive technologies LTD) A+ for having figured out in-app payment which will be a revenue source for many developers in Kenya who have been left out in the cold for long by Google and have no way of Monetizing via Google Wallet.

Activating the premium service on My RCPT

Activating the premium service on My RCPT

Applications of this App

Today I heard my colleague who is a landlord complaining that since Nairobi Water and sewerage company went digital, there is no way he can verify whether the tenants are paying for water or not since the SMS receipts they forward to his phone could be doctored. I recommended the App and he rang to thank me for solving that small trust issue with his tenants. Surely there is need for this App. I can foresee more people finding other uses for the app but first the developers really need to educate people that they can use the app to make their transactions better and easier. I hope this review kick starts the education.

This is what the app can be used for:

  1. Produce virtual E-receipts
  2. Produce printable PDF Receipts
  3. Send PDF receipt via Email as attachment
  4. Scan QR code to verify receipts payments and authenticity
  5. Manage bills and utility payments
  6. Eliminate counterfeit receipts via QR scanning for authenticity verification e.t.c
  7. Virtual vouchers
  8. Manage admissions to concerts,games,plays, theaters e.t.c

Book Review: Matilda by Roald Dahl

It took a child’s book to make me laugh out loud while reading, the last book that evoked a similar response was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. (The scene in church still makes me laugh every time I picture it!).

I never watched Matilda the movie as a child, it is just one of those things that passed me by. But it was definitely worth the wait reading this book as an adult.

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Matilda by Roald Dahl

The book is funny from the first page. It starts by describing those parents who think that their children are just geniuses and pay too much attention to them. However, Matilda’s parents do not seem to realize she exists. From a young age, she learns to take care of herself, and by age three teaches herself to read. When she finishes reading everything in the house, which is not much, she walks to the library and starts tackling the books there. Whenever her parents ever pay attention to her, it is only to unfairly scold her so she hatches her own clever plans to get back at them. Her father’s is a crooked car salesman and her mother is addicted to gambling. Her elder brother goes to school so Matilda is left alone at home on most days, until one day the parents realize she is about 6 and a half years old and should have been going to school already.

At school, the headmistress is a mean old hag but Matilda forms friendships with some of the girls in her class and finds comfort in her wonderful teacher, Miss Honey. With the cast of characters fully introduced, Roald Dahl then weaves a wonderful story of Matilda’s adventures that is full of suspense and humour. If you haven’t read it, please do yourself a favour and read it, whatever age you are. And then gift the book to the children in your life, your sons/daughters, nephews/nieces, friend’s children, grandchildren etc.. It is suitable from anyone 8-15 I guess, but anyone can read it.

I must add that the illustrations by Quentin Blake are simply wonderful, clever, just so appropriate and add to the humour and flow of the story.

I also looked up the movie and watched it, it was good, but of course the book is much better. There are just some things written in the book that could not be expressed in the movie, so you may still want to read the book even if you have watched the movie.

Book Review: Without Mercy by Lisa Jackson

Without Mercy by Lisa Jackson

Without Mercy by Lisa Jackson

I am one of those people who does whatever it takes to finish a book one has started. That is not to say I struggled with this book, I didn’t. The author clearly is a master at writing a flowing story line, even if the plot had a few gaping holes and the entire ensemble and its premise were as interesting as watching grass grow.

It starts well. Jules Farentino’s half sister, Shay, is a troubled teenager. When she commits some crime or other with her boyfriend, she ends up getting arrested and presented with the option of detention or a (correctional) boarding school that is fancy and up in the mountains. However, something is up with Blue Rock Academy and Jules has a bad feeling about it. A student disappeared and has not been found, 6 months later. So Jules applies to be a teacher in the school so she can watch out for Shay.

At the school, Jules starts to discover there is something weird going on in the school. Religious fanaticism? There is an allusion to a sex-crazed religious man prowling the campus in the shadows of the night. Could he be one of the teachers? Jules also gets surprised to meet her ex at the same school, he too is working undercover to try and find the lost girl. Jules reminds me of Sarah, a similarly lackluster main character in the book Broken by Karin Slaughter.

And then a snow storm arrives in the mountains, shutting out the school from outside communication for a while. This is when all the characters come out to play in a final showdown, with a surprising twist in the end that is as believable as the plot about religious fanatics. There are just too many things that don’t make sense, even if the book is an easy read so you end up flipping pages and can finish reading it quickly.

Only later when I finally looked up online did I find that the author has done over 50 novels, and is quite famous. How she ended up on New York’s Best Seller List is a reason you won’t find in this book. She is like Danielle Steele writing one of the weaker plotted novels but tries to squeeze every ounce of emotion out of each scene in the character’s lives (crying because the toast did or didn’t burn, for example) in order to fill the pages, send it to the publishers and it will sell anyway because of the name. Stephen King could publish his groceries list and it would still sell, but I like Stephen King because he puts effort into all his books, none has been a disappointment so far.

If you want to kill yourself with boredom, go for this book. Yawn. It was my companion during my local train ride that has me staring at rice fields and small town houses. This is when I wasn’t keeping my face down trying not to catch the gaze of the old Japanese people stealing glances at the strange black girl with purple hair wondering what I was doing in their sleepy little corner of Japan. The train ride is only 30 minutes long but it makes 15 stops. It feels like you’ve been riding it for 12 hours when you finally get out.

But not to worry guys, the next two books I am going to review will show once again that reading is an immensely enjoyable hobby. They are Matilda by Roald Dahl and The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani.

How is Japan?

I have been asked this question about 100 times; and the brief answer is Japan is good. But that is a lie, Japan is not good. Japan is excellent. Japan is great. Japan is amazing. It is very different from home (Kenya), but it is also not home. I am about to contradict myself and say, it is home for now. So how different is it from Kenya?

This post is likely to be long.. so sit back and relax. (If you want you can skip to the title “Japanese people are kind” for personal experiences and observation, otherwise start straight below)

Japan is very clean. Walking through an average estate in Nairobi, you will note garbage dumped in vacant plots, plastic bags swaying in the wind and finally settling in the drainage by the roadside, and dust blowing into your face from the unpaved pedestrian pavement (where it exists) or from the unpaved road. Well, Nairobi CBD (downtown) is clean, especially West of Moi Avenue, the streets are cooler, it is quieter etc. But there is a waste management problem in the inner estates, and in the country as a whole. In Japan, garbage is sorted down to the last category, and there are different collection days for different types of garbage. In Kenya we include our plastic, used diapers, glass, metal and everything else into one garbage bag that is then picked up once a week. Street children then spend their time sorting out this mound of garbage for recyclables that they can resell. Not unlike India.

Waste pickers in India. Photo [courtsey]

Waste pickers in India. Photo [courtesy]

From the remotest of villages to the largest of the cities, the roads are paved, the streets are clean and garbage is presorted. “The dirtiest” city I have seen so far is Osaka, my friend and I were surprised at some litter under bridges, so by Japanese standards it is dirty. But don’t say it is a third world problem, just look at Rwanda! I stayed there for 3 months and I dare say Rwanda is as clean as Japan; no Japan is as clean as Rwanda! Rwanda has banned plastic bags and so far that works for them. In addition one Saturday a month, everyone gathers for communal clean-up.

Japan has even managed to turn garbage into artificial islands on which Skyscrapers have been erected. Like Port Island in Kobe City, see image below.

Port Island in Kobe City. Image, courtsey

Port Island in Kobe City. Image, courtesy

Japan is very safe

There is virtually no street crime. When you live in a small city (or in a rural area like me), you don’t have to lock your house. Even in the large cities, it is not a problem if you forget to lock your house in the morning. You can forget your phone and wallet  somewhere and find it there the next time, or someone will call you and get them to you. As a woman, you can walk along the streets at night, alone, without fear of robbery or rape. You can use your smartphone in a crowded street without fear of it being snatched, you don’t have to worry about your bag in the streets or in public transport, your wallet is very unlikely to be pickpocketed (I resist the urge to tell Japanese people to tuck in their wallets more safely into their pockets, the men’s wallets are always popping out of their back pockets!), when you drive home late in the evening, you don’t have to worry about carjackers, when you have bought a 60-inch screen you don’t have to worry if someone saw you with it and they are planning a gunned robbery.. and so on and so forth.

In contrast, just the other day as my dad arrived home late one evening, there were armed robbers who ambushed him, took his laptop and phone; and as my mum had opened the door to let him in when she heard the car, they forced their way into the house and demanded money at gun-point. I was so furious yet helpless, thousands of miles away and even if I were home, I am not sure what I would have done. When I left work for home in the evening, I would walk from Upperhill to Ambassador, Moi Avenue, to catch a bus home. I wouldn’t dare freely use my Samsung Note 3  while walking in the streets as I have had my phone snatched before. At the bus stop, there would be a large crowd of people gathered and not all of them are passengers-to-be, some are opportunistic thieves waiting for a chance to pickpocket you. You have to be always on the lookout.

As such, whenever a Japanese person says “abunai desu ka” or “abunai desu ne”.. “is it dangerous” “it must be dangerous”, I just say “soo desu ne” “yes it is”. What other defense is there? I do not have sufficient Japanese vocabulary to explain that when you are born Kenyan, you grow up under these circumstances so this is “normal” to you; the need to be always alert. A violent robbery (thank God no lives were lost), a snatched phone (you will get another one soon), a lost wallet (IDs are replaceable don’t worry), you forget something somewhere and that’s the end of that. I was talking to a Japanese student and told him he was welcome to visit Kenya and he visibly shuddered. abunai he uttered. I tried to explain to him that the whole country is not like that, there are safe places and there are un-safe places. But really, even when you live in a gated community with electric fencing and a trained guard with dogs, there is always the fear of carjacking etc. Kenya is not thaat dangerous, especially if it is home. And anyway, death could find you wherever you are (natural disasters anyone?), so really do take some risks (you risk death just by being alive)and come see Kenya for yourself, it is a lovely place to visit. If you are a foreigner reading this, you are missing an experience of a lifetime, I speak from experience.

Americans think the world revolves around them :)

Americans think the world revolves around them 🙂

Japan’s Home to the The Bullet Trains

Japan’s public transportation system has got to be among the best in the world. Sure, rush hour in Tokyo’s metro can feel suffocating (so I hear) but trains are an efficient way to move human traffic in cities. Sure beats Nairobi’s rush hour (and all day) traffic as well. When I went to Tokyo, the subway was amazing, going up to 7 levels below the ground, a different line on each level. Anyway, for comparison I have posted this before, but check it out again:

Nairobi:

The Nairobi Commuter Train Route.

The Nairobi Commuter Train Route. Image from www.jambonairobi.co.ke

Tokyo: and this is not even the complete map.

The Tokyo Train Map.

The Tokyo Train Map. Image from http://www.wa-pedia.com/

Of course we can’t compare Tokyo’s 13.35 Million population against Nairobi’s 3.123 Million, but bypasses, abolishing roundabouts, smart traffic lights etc will not solve our perennial traffic congestion problem. We need trains, subways, monorails.

A suspended mono-rail, how cool is this?

A suspended mono-rail, how cool is this? Image from wikipedia

Japan is very mountainous

Kenya has a vast savanna grassland, think of the entire stretch of Tsavo as you drive from Nairobi to Mombasa. And for the life of me, I cannot think of a single tunnel passing through a mountain, can you? Travelling by bus from Tokyo to Kanazawa, or from Kanazawa to Osaka, you realize just how mountainous this country is when you go through tunnel after tunnel after tunnel after tunnel! Japan holds the record for the longest railway tunnel in the world that is 53,850 m (over 53 Kms!) long. Perhaps this mountainous terrain contributed to Japan’s advancement in engineering, conquering the mountains could not have been easy!

Well, this is a very short tunnel but you get the point!

Short tunnel

Short tunnel

Japan is a beautiful country, it’s breathtaking sometimes. With four distinct seasons (a beautiful spring, hot summer -though not as hot as India! – an auburn autumn and a white winter). I could describe it all it you but it will take the fun out for the imaginative as well as for the wanna-be explorers.

Japan is very proud of its culture and gardens! It has a rich history whose remains in form of old temples, castles, and shrines still stand today.

Japanese people are kind.

Case scenario: my friend told me he spent some time in India. If you are a black person in India, you are treated like you are in the lowest caste, a system of discrimination that still stands to date. I guess India has so many other problems that they don’t want to deal with this at the moment but as anyone (black) who has been to India will tell you, rude stares, snide remarks, and standing up when you sit next to them in public transport are the order of the day. Worse is, my friend even got the discriminating treatment from staff in the hotel he was staying in. Worst, is the news of a violent attack on 3 black African students in India.

In contrast, he told me a story of how he got stranded at Kanazawa Station, being new in Japan and not knowing the bus/train schedules. When he arrived the last bus was long gone. A Japanese couple noticed him and offered him a ride to Nomi Station, from where we take the train to JAIST (university). The last train was gone too, and even as he got off and looked around, the couple came back and asked him where he was going. He didn’t understand Japanese so he just showed them his school ID and they went  30 Kms out of their way to drop him off in JAIST way after 11pm. He has never seen the couple since then.  I have heard various stories from foreigners in Japan who tell of the acts of kindness they have received from Japanese people.

Kanazawa Station. Image, courtesy.

Kanazawa Station. Image, courtesy.

No, I am not saying that Japanese people are perfect, or that Japan is perfect, but you are likely to receive help from kind strangers in Japan than in any other country I have ever heard of or experienced. In other words I think that the concentration of kind people is higher in Japan. Perhaps because they are brought up in a culture that emphasizes the importance of courtesy and respect.

Obama showing respect the Japanese way

Obama showing respect the Japanese way

Will you experience discrimination, disguised under politeness so excessive you can’t even tell if it is discrimination or an actual lack of understanding? Maybe. But is there a perfect country? In any case, I have experienced discriminatory service at Java Upperhill where white people who came later than us were served immediately while we waited for an interminable length of time. Imagine that, in my own country. Makes my blood boil. Fucking black racists. As if our money has a black mark that lowers its value or as if our credit cards aren’t platinum enough. takes deep breath, releases deep breath. Let’s move on.

Excellent service

At first it can be shocking to enter a restaurant and hear a chorus of irashaimase! (Welcome). You will also be addressed a with honorific title, okyaku-sama (honoured customer).  When you exit the shop/restaurant, it is likely that all the staff will signal to one other and you could hear another chorus of arigatou gozaimasu. The customer is king and Japanese people lead by example in demonstrating this. Excellent service is available everywhere, even at the cheapest of places. In contrast, good service in Kenya is mostly available in star-rated restaurants. Imagine walking into a shop like Mr. Price and expecting all staff to welcome you, it is more likely that you will get a look that says, oh God here comes another one. And in Japan you don’t tip. Your change comes back to you to the last yen. (The tipping culture in the US began when there was a law passed that allowed tips to make up the difference between actual pay and minimum wage). As such, tipping is agonizing for Japanese people whenever they travel to the US.

Tipping rules in the US. SO complicated! How will the Japanese read all this English? And who wants to do math? In Japan you just pay what's on your bill and you are still assured of excellent service.

Tipping rules in the US. SO complicated! How will the Japanese read all this English? And who wants to do math? In Japan you just pay what’s on your bill and you are still assured of excellent service.

You could say Japanese people are punctual, they keep time to the last possible second. You have to leave your “African timing” mindset the moment you set foot on the plane. Even for social functions you can’t be late, you call to apologize if you are going to be 5 minutes late, not like in Kenya where friends will call you 30 minutes later to tell you they are stuck in traffic.

Japanese people don’t take risks. 

Herein lies their Archilles’ heel, if you ask me. For example if I go into a phone shop to ask for a SIM card, and this is the first time a foreigner is walking in to buy a SIM card, the attendant will ask their supervisor what to do. If the supervisor has no experience with foreigners, he will refer to the manual, they have a manual for every little procedure you can think of! If there is nothing in the manual, he may call his boss who will then check his manual, if this boss finds nothing he will call his boss.. and so on and so forth. Sometimes I joke that in the end they call the prime minister just to avoid risks by making any new decisions. Or ANY decisions. Japanese workers DO NOT make any decisions, they just do what they are told or what the manual says they should do. Decision making is only left to those whose role explicitly states “decision maker” but I bet even they too have a manual. So it’s like they don’t think for themselves, a robot nation  that worked well for when Japan was rising and rising and it needed workers for its massive corporations. But the tide is slowly turning and an innovative and changing society is how nations can cope with the current economic situation.

Japanese people don’t know how to loosen up, to let go, to have fun. Oh sure, they have izakayas (bars that are like boring locals) but it is not fun to just sit and drink, you need to get up and dance Japanese people. And I don’t mean the graceful sashaying of geishas that can put the most restless child to sleep; no, like shake your bodies mugiithi-style, or Jacob-Zuma style. Shake that booty, shake that belly, shake those shoulders, shake it, shake it. Shake your problems away. You can find nightclubs in the big cities but they clubs are fewer, perhaps located in “shaky/scary” neighbourhoods, so dance clubs are not a big a culture. By contrast in Kenya, there is dancing every pub/club, even some locals. When the alcohol in your blood reaches certain levels, your body catches the tune of the music and you move your body to the real or imagined tune. You don’t even have to be drunk to dance, look at our weddings, and funerals, and other celebrations, even Sunday mass/church services – I guess the holy spirit is at work here?

Jacob Zuma shows how it is done during the ceremony of his nth wife

Jacob Zuma shows how it is done during the wedding ceremony of his nth wife. I am sure I will never see a public figure dancing, in public, in Japan.

No one knows how to have fun like Africans do. Perhaps South Americans come close.. but in spite of our problems and our bottom-of-the-economic-pile status, we don’t let that get to us. In contrast Japanese people may not want to talk about their problems, don’t have a way to let loose or perhaps “pray to God” which is what we do a lot, “we leave that to God”. They will walk with the weight of their problems into Mount Fuji’s suicide forest, never to be seen alive again.

If a Japanese person loses honour, it is a big shame not only to you but to your family as well. Some Japanese politicians have in the past committed suicide after being named in corruption scandals. A worthy politician in Kenya has several scandals under his “experience” belt. Kenyan (African) politicians simply have no capacity for embarrassment or shame. In my mother tongue I would say, mbabwati egesokero.

Japanese People are conservative. They don’t question authority. I have never seen a march/protest of any kind, perhaps there is nothing to protest about? I have never heard of a union of workers. Most of the Japanese people I know in formal employment work long hours. In spite of its technological advancement, I think that socially/culturally there is no room for even a little personal freedom.

There are no babies out of wedlock. Such a thing is unheard of. If a girl gets pregnant before marriage, she has to have an abortion (or get married), abortion is legal for many reasons including economic ones. See, a society that is liberal enough to allow for abortion should also be liberal enough to accept babies born to unwed parents, no? Single parenthood is virtually unheard of.

Which brings me to the family situation. An interesting fact is usually, the man’s salary will go into the wife’s account; normally a woman will stop working once she gets married to take care of the family. Therefore it is the woman who manages the money for bills, school fees, rent, and the husband’s expenditure, she determines who gets how much. They say this is the reason that Japan’s literacy rate is close to 100%, women are better fund managers and no mother is going to waste money on drinking with the mboys (Kenyans you feel me?) while school fees has not been paid.

There are no house helps/servants/domestic workers/maids/housekeepers, whatever you may call them; I have never seen a Japanese family worker. Even if you wanted to hire one, it would be too costly, you would rather stay home and pay yourself that money to take care of our own children. There are daycare centers for women who want to work, of course. But I get the feeling that this society expects you to quit your job and raise the kids (after all, if your husband is in formal employment i.e. salary man), he should make enough for the family. US families can afford cheap housekeepers from Latin America (that is what US dramas show) because US is somewhat immigration friendly. Now don’t look at me like that, see US has an immigration policy in the first place. I am not sure that Japan has such a policy that states how it can fill gaps in its employment with foreigners. And the gaps are there, what with the world’s oldest population and general population decrease.

Japan has no immigration policy

I think Japanese people adopt a “tolerant” attitudes towards foreigners, like “aww look at that baby” attitude “when will he grow up”. I get the feeling that they don’t expect you to stay long in Japan, to become “one of them”. You can be born in Japan, grow up here, receive your education in Japanese, adopt Japanese manners, be Japanese in everything except looks, but you will never be accepted as fully Japanese. In contrast, someone born in say, the US, can easily blend in and identify themselves as American. Or British. Or French. Just to show an example. Sure no one is going to force you out! You can stay as long as you like! But there is no plan to open up Japan to immigration, so really there is “no space” for you. Here is an article to illustrate my point: Japan’s ‘no immigration principle’ looking as solid as ever. In short, you are welcome to Japan, but please you can’t stay forever. You can never become Japanese. Oh you can get citizenship and permanent residency but never the intangible “I am Japanese” feeling, how can you, when no Japanese would ever identify you as one of them..

This should not be mistaken for discrimination or unfriendliness; no as above stated Japanese people are generally kind and friendly and tolerant to foreigners (who are coming for a short stay). I am Kenyan in culture, race etc so no, I do not want to become Japanese. However, I worry about my son. He is just 2 years old and I will soon be bringing him to Japan. We will stay here for at least 3 years for the duration of my PhD. If I do stay longer, what kind of life will he have in a “no immigration” “homogeneous” “Japanese is one-race” place? If he were to grow up here, he will speak Japanese as his main language, have Japanese friends, absorb Japanese mannerisms and culture; but he will never be Japanese. Anyway what I am saying is, I am a citizen of the world and I will stay where there is a good opportunity to make a change etc, but my main consideration is bringing up a happy and successful child.

What Else?

Over 3,000 words! Pat yourself on the back for reaching here. There could be more but I will write that as time goes by, for instance the bureaucracy, the multiple form-filling for any simple service, ATMs that don’t operate 24-hours, the complicated process of renting a private apartment, the manga culture,  etc. I suppose this makes Japan as safe as it is now so there are trade-offs.

Apologies if I sounded whiny or critical of this wonderful nation and its distinctive people, I do love it here! Opinions here are my own and I could be wrong. I have only been here for about 9 months so I am no expert.

Next time someone asks me “How is Japan” I will just send them a link to this blog post. I doubt they will ever repeat that question to me, ever!

Thanks for reading.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

We have all asked ourselves the question of where the universe came from, and sometimes we also ask where it will end up. Then we decide to focus on just “ordinary” life on earth, forgetting that this very earth is spinning. It spins (rotates) at a speed of about 1,000 miles (1600 kilometers) per hour and orbits around the Sun at a speed of about 67,000 miles (107,000 kilometers) per hour. But we don’t feel it because the earth rotates and revolves  at a constant speed. We only feel motion when there is a change in speed.

Our Solar System

Our Solar System

Gravity

If we are a giant ball spinning so fast around in space, what is keeping us there? Why aren’t we drifting away from the sun, crashing into other planets etc? We can all thank the law of gravity for that. Although it is a “weak force”, it exerts itself across long distances and it is always attractive, that is objects with mass will always attract one another with the force of gravity. The planets in our solar system are all caught up in the sun’s gravity so they all orbit it. But they orbit it at such a speed as to balance the force of gravity that would otherwise cause them crash into the sun. If  the speed were any faster too, the planets would overcome the force of gravity and drift further away.

If we zoom out of our solar system, the milky way and other galaxies around us are also observed to be constantly moving, at this critical speed that balances gravity. But is the observable universe  drifting farther apart? So it seems. If the universe is drifting apart, could this imply that at some time in the past it was all “together” at a singularity, at the point of the big bang. What is a singularity, exactly? Well, Stephen Hawking tries to explain in his book. Can gravity be so strong that it attracts the matter in a body and condenses into such high density that nothing can escape from it?

A black hole in space

A black hole in space

 

This leads to the subject of black holes. There is matter out there in the universe that we cannot see, but we can see its effects because observable matter revolves around it. For example, if we see a star seemingly orbiting empty space, this “empty space” implies there is matter there but we cannot see it because gravity  is so strong nothing can escape from it, not even light. What is at the center of a black hole, if for example you fell into one? At the center of a black is a singularity, a point in which all the laws of physics break down and thus there is no telling what happens then.

The Strong Forces 

Over time, scientists have discovered the other forces in the universe. Physics was on “two levels”, the macro level observing the universe out there, and the micro level examining subatomic particles. In high school physics, we were taught that the smallest particles are electrons, protons and neutrons (these 3 make up an atom, which in turn make up a molecule). However, protons and neutrons are made up of even smaller particles called quarks! Are there even smaller particles than that? It does not seem so. But are there undiscovered subatomic particles? It seems so!

Higgs Boson, the origin of Universe Mass

The Higg’s Boson, the origin of the World’s Mass. Image from http://4.bp.blogspot.com/

Recently in the news, there was the news of the particle accelerator (the machine they use to break up protons into even smaller particles) in Switzerland receiving an upgrade so that the super smart scientists can observe a particle known as the Higg’s Boson. We were taught in school that protons and neutrons contain mass and so are much heavier than electrons, but it turns out that protons and neutrons too, don’t have any mass! They pick up the mass property when they interact with the Higg’s field. The particles that make up the Higg’s field are called the Higg’s Boson. (This part about Higg’s Boson is not in this book actually, because it was published in 1988 – the year I was born. Stephen Hawking also wrote The Grand Design in 2010, which is definitely more updated and which I hope to read next).

(I hope there is someone still reading this!)

Okay, there is the force that keeps protons and neutrons together in the nucleus of an atom. This is called the strong nuclear force and that is why we need a lot of energy, achievable via the particle accelerator (the size of the largest one is 175Km in circumfrence lying 175 meters below the ground) to break apart protons and neutrons.  There is the weak nuclear force that keeps the quarks stable (don’t ask me to elaborate!).

There is the electromagnetic force that is observable all around us. At first it was thought that electricity and magnetism were two different forces until an English Scientist known as John Maxwell showed that they are like two different forms of the same force. Light is an electromagnetic wave, for example.

Stephen Hawking explains these forces more in his book, but fear not, there is no single equation except  E=mc2  pioneered by Einstein, he who came up with the theory of relativity. I kind of wish the equations were there (I am not sure I will understand them!) but actually equations are just symbols to explain “complex” thought. Imagine saying “eight times five is equal to forty” instead of” 8 X 5 = 40. ” He has to explain the equations in simple words for us to understand the complex physics theories!

The Unification of the Forces

So at the current energies of the universe, we have all these sub-atomic particles, and all these forces (that are carried by subatomic, force-carrying particles). However, at some critical energy, all these particles will lose their uniqueness and act as the same particle, the same force. This is called the grand unified theory which occurs at this high energy which unifies the three forces: weak and strong nuclear forces, and the electromagnetic force.

But this leaves out gravity.

Unification of physics

Unification of physics

To incorporate gravity, the equations get extremely complex. The string theory is one of those theories trying to unify the 3 forces with gravity. Hence the “macro”  and “micro” physicists are now working together, it is the unification of physics. For the string theory to work however, it would mean that the universe is composed of up to 26 dimensions! We can barely process 3 let alone 4 or more dimensions!

There is so much more fascinating stuff in the book, such as warm holes, singularities, quantum mechanics, black holes, dark matter (and dark energy?), does God have any role at all in the creation of the universe (maybe he made the laws that govern the universe but so far he has had little interference since then), what role did Galileo Galilei, Aristotle, Sir Iscaac Newton, Einstein and many more others play in the development of physics up to the modern age?

The problem with science (and knowledge) today is that it has got so complex that to understand it, you have to dedicate your entire life to just one small part of it. But this book opens up the world of physics in a new and exciting way, makes me feel like computer science is boring in comparison! The book is “simplified” and quite exciting to read, just read through the parts you don’t understand and marvel at the ones you do!

As you will see, this book is not against God as the creator; on the contrary Stephen Hawking realizes that scientists are just answering the “what” questions. What makes the earth revolve around the sun? It does not answer “why”, why should the forces of gravity even exist in the first place? Why should a universe exist in the first place such that the laws that govern it then exist? However, that God created man literally? You may have to rethink that, given the overwhelming evolution theory and scientific facts. It is my belief that the Bible should be revised to reflect the new knowledge we have uncovered in recent times. After all, we do revise our textbooks whenever we discover something new!

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

Anyway, this book is a recommended reading for all who can read!